Nestled where the Nam Khan River meets the Mekong in north-central Laos, this ancient capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and although some of those sites are more political than real, believe me this is one of the winners and you will NOT be disappointed.
Why Visit Luang Prabang
If the Luang Prabang box has not yet been ticked off from your globe trotting must-do matrix, it's time to get yourself in gear and visit this ancient capital of Laos.
It was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos until the Communist take-over in 1975 and all of that wonderful history is laid out and totally accessible.
Know that Lao is NOT Vietnam. The notion of "laid back" was invented here and chilling out is a national obsession. There is no local word for fast or urgent. Classic Type A's should visit another country!
What to See in Luang Prabang
Visit Wat Chom Si, a landmark temple of Luang Prabang which sits atop a hill so is easy to spot. There are many more temples and monasteries that are worth visiting and easy to find and visit.
You will meet some monks in the temple courtyard and some of them love to practice their English to practice their English so asking them about the temple can be real fun.
The temple grounds are often peaceful so just enjoy a rest and enjoy the quiet around you. Squint your eyes and drift back a thousand years and get a feeling of timelessness. If this does not make sense to you, please go to downtown Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh and go jogging with your fellow MBA's.
Don't forget to visit the Vat Xieng Toung, the oldest of their monasteries. There is an entry fee and make sure you check the hours when it is opened.
Cool Things to Do in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang has still a very simple rural life. This is what fascinates many tourists, an experience of Southeast Asia when it has not yet been developed to look more like any other city. Here are some of the not to miss things to do in Luang Prabang:
1. Participate in the Dawn Offering to the Monks
Rise early with the monks and watch them stream through the streets accepting food offerings from the locals who are seated on their mats that line the sidewalk of the main city street.
Clad in their saffron robes with their bowls, they flow along the pavement like a golden river. They are NOT begging. They bless the homes and families and allow those who wish to do merit to give them food. It is a ritual that needs to be respected by keeping your distance. Equally, it needs to be understood or you'll really miss the importance of Buddhism to the culture.
You may participate in this ceremony by offering alms as well but prepare your own offering of fruits or rice so you know these are safe for the monks to eat. There have been cases of people just buying from unscrupulous merchants who sell them stale food and this making the monks reluctant to continue the practice of taking alms from foreigners.
My suggestion is that you just watch the process unfold with respect. If you really want to try, ask for someone to help you and get instructions on how to do this properly.
2. Cruise the Mekong in Luang Prabang and Visit the Pak Ou Caves and the Villages
Rent a local boat for the day and just cruise through the Mekong towards the famous Pak Ou caves which as a destination can be a bit disappointing but the trip is enjoyable.
The villages that line the river are full of life and you can stop at some of these for visits. The locals are really happy to see you and are often there waiting for sales from tourists.
3. Shop at the Night Market in Luang Prabang
In the evening, the main street is transformed into a night market. It starts a bit early and ends early as well. You will see many Hmong, some in their traditional garb, lining their mats with whatever crafts they have for sale.
Food stalls are busy as well. They are lined up in the streets so it is not hard to find al fresco dining can cost as much as a dollar. Maybe, higher now with food prices going up everywhere. But the market is well lit and clean and not crowded so you can get some great pictures.
4. Hang out in Luang Prabang's Main Street and try out its restaurants
Hang out in one of the restaurants along the main street. You can get a great meal along with a free education on the mis-adventures of tour groups. Have a contest. Which national tour groups are the worst dressed, or are the loudest, or grumpiest or least sensitive? It is usually fun but occasionally very embarrassing as you recognize a group from your patch really being offensive!
This small patch of territory in remote Southeast Asia seems to attract the world's unique and exotic tourists and given the main street concentration, there is enough for the eyes to feast on.
There are quasi-museums to enjoy some local cultural artifacts. Some are cum-restaurants and stores. They are in the main street and are good places to buy quality souvenirs. At premium prices, of course.
The city is full of old style architecture homes that reflect the place's colonial (French) past. It also has a fair collection of 20 somethings with dead locks and the lost look of those that sold their ticket home for a last packet of weed.
Luang Prabang in Laos History
In the ancient times, Luang Prabang was called Muang Sua. The first dynasty was established by Khun Lo, a Tai prince, and his assorted off spring ruled for a century until the Nan-chao princes took over.
The Khmer (Cambodians) took over for a century or so until the national hero, Sipsong Panna gave them the boot. It's hard to imagine a war between the Khmer and the Lao in that such activity might interrupt everyone's sleep. But both the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge showed the hidden capacity for savagery that seems to lie in all of us.
When France annexed Laos, the French recognized Luang Prabang as the royal residence of Laos and the ruler of Luang Prabang became the figurehead of the French Protectorate.
No Colonial Government can be called good, but the French were maybe a bit better than average and did leave a few worthwhile contributions such as leaving without destroying the country as they nearly did in Vietnam and Algeria, and leaving the recipe for baguettes.
When Laos achieved independence in the 1950's, the then King of Luang Prabang, Sisavang Vong, became the head of state of the Kingdom of Laos by default and it gradually started to slip back to the long sleep that has marked most of its history.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
There are many options now for places to stay as Luang Prabang has gone beyond the once backpack route. Along the river, there are cheaper rooms and just outside of town are some of the high end luxurious hotels which will spoil you and give you the best views.
Our choice as we wanted to be able to walk to the center easily, was the Maison Souvannaphoum, the former residence of Prince Souvanna Phouma. It only offers 4 guest rooms in the royal residence and 20 more in the garden wing. You have a good view of the garden in your balcony. It has also a very good spa.
Luang Prabang is a wonderfully accessible city, cleaner than many and with miles of smiles. It's not expensive, and you will meet the world.
EcoTourism in Luang Prabang
The European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) declared Laos the World's Best Destination for 2013. According to the Council, Laos effort at preserving its natural sites and promoting responsible tourism made this destination the best choice.